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Before Napa, there was Winehaven

on October 13, 2009

Between the San Pablo Bay and a steep ridge lined with eucalyptus trees sits a lone burgundy fortress. Sharp-eyed commuters on the San Rafael Bridge may wonder what this structure is, with its turrets and crenellated parapets.  At its feet, a long, narrow wharf stretches across the water toward San Quentin. The Vallejo ferry passes by the secluded promontory every day, but never makes a stop. A road runs through the crumbling premises, but a fence bars would-be explorers from wandering around Winehaven.

A century ago, Point Molate was the site of a busy rail and shipping hub, employing hundreds of people.  The red brick fortress at its center was a Gilded Age testament to the successful marriage between 20th century industrial production and California grapes.

Winehaven was born in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The great fire that followed the tremor incinerated the South of Market headquarters of the California Wine Association: America’s most powerful wine distributors.

Winehaven today. [Phoebe Fronistas]

Winehaven today.

In just over a decade, the Association had taken California’s wine industry from impoverishment to international renown, not so much for the quality of the wine as for the Calwa brand; modern Californian wines owe much to the Association’s marketing tactics. It was the first time American wine carried local place names like Hillcrest, La Loma, Wahtoke and Glenridge. Napa was yet to emerge; the banner grape county of 1900 was Fresno. After California and New York, Ohio was the third biggest wine-producing state in the country.

When seven San Francisco wine merchants joined to form the California Wine Association, local grapes sold for less than it cost to pick them.  But under a trademark depicting the state bear standing next to Dionysus on the prow of a ship, the California Wine Association steadily bought and controlled all stages of the industry “on a scale without precedent,” wrote historian Thomas Pinney in A History of Wine in America, “beginning with the grape and ending at the retail shelf.” By the time the 1906 fire consumed the Association’s cellars and 10 billion gallons of wine stored there, the conglomerate held 85 percent of the state’s wine market.

The Association’s fortunes were so robust that just six months after the earthquake they were able to establish grand new headquarters. Their open letter to stockholders appeared in the October 1906 issue of the Pacific Wine and Spirits Review. “After mature deliberation,” the Association announced, “a most favorable site consisting of 47 acres has been acquired near the town of Richmond, in Contra Costa County. This location has been appropriately named Winehaven.”

At the time, the only inhabitants at Point Molate were Chinese shrimpers. The original Native American inhabitants had been pushed northward during California’s Gold Rush, and the Chinese fared no better. The few families laboring there were already under pressure from the anti-Chinese legislation passed in the early 20th century; by 1912 hardly any traditional shrimping boats were left.

Construction on the commercial city-state, as Pinney dubs Winehaven, began in 1907. Eventually, more than 400 workers lived on site, says Don Gosney, community co-chair of the Point Molate Restoration Advisory Board. There were cottages for married couples, a hotel for single workers, a school and a social hall. Each month, 40 ships left for New York alone.

The crumbling pier waits for repairs. [Phoebe Fronistas]

The crumbling pier waits for repairs.

An Association billboard from 1910 catalogues their intoxicants. Twelve large bottles of Winehaven, a “mature red table claret:” $4. 48 quarter bottles of Madrona, a “fine old port type:” $10. Out of the way saloons could order five-gallon casks of any Calwa wine to be dropped at the local rail depot.

Mass wine production came to an abrupt halt with the advent of Prohibition in 1919. Winehaven had to be abandoned at the peak of its success; the market for sacrificial wine and grape juice was just not big enough to keep it open.

The 1960s had it all thought out.

The cellar still contains 1960s bomb shelter paraphernalia.

The buildings remained mostly empty for the next twenty years, until the US Navy acquired the land during World War II. The Navy extended the property substantially and turned it into a Naval Fuel Depot. The winemaster’s cottage now housed the chief officer, and the hotel for single workers became a barracks. The cellars were converted into a nuclear bomb shelter. Dusty instruction manuals, sanitation kits and water barrels dating from the 1960s are still there.

The Navy left in 1995, and the City of Richmond now owns 90 percent of the waterfront property. There are 35 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, but no one can visit because the structures are too old and dangerous. While the city, residents, and the developer Upstream LLC deliberate over a proposal to build a casino there, the promontory is left the plaything of the gulls, which scatter shards of mussel shells along the disused pier.


The story so far:

Before Napa there was Winehaven (Oct. 13)
County supervisors willing to be wooed (Nov. 3)
County unanimous support for casino (Nov. 11)
Local casino opposition crumbling (Nov. 11)
The law behind gaming at Point Molate (Nov. 12)


  1. William Lewis on October 18, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Your article On Winehaven was well done. I am the last Navy Director at Pt. Molate and retired in 1996. The building was built in 1908 to with stand earthqukes. The concrete walls have steel I beams in them and about 3 foot thick. The basement housing the Atomic shelter was reestablished as a control point in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. When the bridge went out we contacted Treasure Island and found they needed diapers and milk badly. Cdr. Charles Vickers, collected donations from employees and housing Navy personnel and sent his wife to the store to buy diapers, milk and other items. We hauled them to T. I. with our twin engine boats, until they could get what the needed from regular sources. Winehaven saved France from the grape disease plaque, by sending loads of wine by clipper ships. Originally clipper ships could come right up the the storage warehouses, as there was deep water. The Navy later filled the area in. What a great place and history this place has. Bill Lewis

  2. […] Many of the facilities would be restored turn-of-the-century buildings that once housed Winehaven, a large pre-Prohibition […]

  3. […] Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is Point Molate. If you follow the winding, crumbling street, you pass Winehaven’s turn-of-the-century buildings, Richmond’s Rod and Gun Club, the burnt remnants of an old […]

  4. […] Fronistas, Phoebe. “Before Napa, there was Winehaven.” Blog. Richmond Confidential, October 13, 2009. […]

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